Olympus XA: The pocket professional

Posted on by Bellamy


Olympus XA: The pocket professional by Stephen Dowling
This article was featured on Stephen’s site, and I liked it so much that I asked to have it on this site for you all to enjoy.

Cameras don’t come much smaller than the Olympus XA. A compact camera with a clamshell sliding door, this little rangefinder was sold on the strengths of its pocketable size. But its strengths didn’t end there.

Designed by Olympus’s legendary Yoshihisa Maitani and released in 1979, the XA packed a lot of punch for a camera small enough to stuff in your pocket. No Lomo-style zone-focusing here – the XA was a rangefinder like it’s bigger, bulkier cousins such as the Leica and the Contax, but a fraction of the size. The Zuiko lens contained in the XA’s tiny frame was sharp and contrasty (Olympus had an enviable reputation for its lenses thanks to the OM range of SLRs and the Olympus Trip compact).

The XA quickly became a favourite with street photographers – the camera’s tiny size makes it look like a tourist’s happy snapper, rather than something a serious photographer would use; perfect for grabbing shots without anyone noticing.

roundel_dowling

Why’s the XA so good? It focuses down to less than a metre, the lens opens up to 2.8 – it even has an over-ride so you can take pics with strong backlighting. The shutter button responds to the lightest touch, meaning camera shake in this little gems is kept to a minimum. The XA was only the start of a series of XAs, including the Lomo-like zone-focusing XA2, a selenium-celled version called the XA1 and the macro XA4.

ferris_wheel_dowling

The excellent camera review site Photoethnography described the XA as ” the camera that professional photographers carry on their vacations”. I first realised how good the XA was when Phil Coomes, the BBC News website’s picture editor, used one for his64×64 project to mark the dying days of Kodachrome 64. Soon after I found one for sale at the RPS’s annual photography fair in London – in perfect working order for£4. You can find them for cheaper on eBay, but being able to prod and poke old film cameras and see if they’re actually working is always a good idea.

bt_tower_dowling

I wasn’t disappointed. The XA is an incredibly good camera, packed with features that would usually be found on much more expensive – and much bigger cameras. My XA has travelled with me to Barcelona and Dubrovnik, and a sunny Reading festival. It’s not only a superb street shooter but perfect for Lomo-style shooting – cross-processed slide comes out a treat. With an ISO setting that goes up to 800, there’s plenty of scope for low-light shooting, especially as there’s no mirror to cause camera shake.

brighton_bike_dowling

I hadn’t shot on the Olympus for 18 months or so, but pulled it out of the camera drawer to take on a recent trip to Brighton. In bright but overcast weather, the XA paired with Fomapan 200 was perfect; punchy pics with hard, contrasty blacks.

brighton_beach_dowling

The old school photographer’s advice is always have a camera with you. The XA should be that camera.

Thanks to Stephen Dowling for sharing this article with us. All the pictures are his and cannot be reproduced without his permission.

If you would like to see the original article, click here or visit Stephen’s site zorkiphoto.co.uk.

Thanks
JCH

11 Responses to Olympus XA: The pocket professional

Jim Felt October 19, 2013 at 3:36 pm

What a hoot! I still have one or two of these ancient analogue workhorses. One I believe still on the box. Strobe and all.
Haven’t thought of them let alone looked for then in over ten years!
But they were pretty fun. Until I went to the Contax T series…
Alas they too are ignored…
Nice story.

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stanis riccadonna zolczynski October 19, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Olympus XA4 was not a real macro camera. It sported an excellent Zuiko 28mm f.3.5 lens that focused down to 30cm. I have one and it`s a wonderful street cam that could be operated with one hand. When closing, its camshell cover set the lens at 3m. You could set the distance without looking at scale, just by counting the clicks, inf, 3m, 1,5m, 1m, 0.7m , 0.5m , 0.3m. A truly design ikon thought for the photographer.

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Paul Schofield October 19, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Nice article. Love my XA although mine cost a bit more than £4. Like all good designs it has a timeless quality – it just works really well. The metering is surprisingly good even in high contract situations and the +1.5 stop lever is genius. The lens is not at all shabby, either, even today. I use mine regularly and have stockpiled a couple of cheaper XA3′s for my kids. With the first XA that I bought, I found that the lower clam-shell runner had split and come away from the body. I suspect that this might be a common problem to check for.

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NATO October 19, 2013 at 9:45 pm

This article is good. Being a relatively young photographer most of the older cameras are well over my head but working at a local camera shop has really broadened my camera knowledge. Since starting at the shop about three years ago the XA has very quickly become one of my all time favorite cameras to shoot for the simple reason that it doesn’t look like a serious camera. It’s THE perfect street photography camera as stated in the article above. Being that I like this series of cameras from Olympus so much I have now have two XAs and one XA2.

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Gillyman October 21, 2013 at 1:05 am

Great article and I have just dug my XA out!

When I first starting using my XA I found the focus a bit fiddly and the rangefinder lacked contrast. Focusing was basically guesswork or infinity. Then I found the rangefinder Sharpie tip from Rick Oleson and this has great;y helped my focusing with this camera.

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Marc October 31, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Great article,
I own this camera for about 3 years now. again. Had one many years ago. I own the flash too. Great everyday performer, great option with the flash and b/w film.
Now i go on and enjoy the “whats in your bag” series. thanx.
greets from germany.

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luca November 1, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Sometimes before go outside I ask myself “why today I should choose XA instead of my Contax T2?” For the moment no answer, I know it is different price range but a T2 is still ahead the small olympus gem.

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Titanium Mike September 21, 2014 at 9:36 pm

I’ve loved this little gem from the moment I bought it (mint in box). I’m not too fond of the flash module though..it makes it too wide and cumbersome to operate (for me). But the quality of the lens..wow. Simple and straight forward controls..there’s very little left to want with this camera. Nowadays I carry it on me 24/7 for a one-pic-every-day series I’ve started a few months ago. And when I got the first scanned results back, just blown away. At f/2.8 and f/4 there’s some interesting softness in the corners..something a lot of photographers apparently don’t appreciate..but I do. Very much so. Great article!

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